An Unexpected Brazil-to-Knoxville Connection

Barbara Curran, Knoxville, July 2019

People pitch me stories at a pretty steady pace. Sometimes it’s just not a good fit, or there is simply too much happening to fit it in. It’s not unusual, however, for a friend or reader to point me in the direction of something that might have a broader interest to readers. I recently got such a message from Barbara Curran.

Via the Inside of Knoxville FB page, she wrote:

Hi , I am from Brazil and most of my friends are foreigners and we love Knoxville, I wrote a blog about , maybe you could post on your page ? Every year more and more foreigner are coming to Knox it’s our paradise.

I read her blog and became more curious. After some conversation, she agreed to meet me for an interview. It was eye-opening from the outset, hearing both her descriptions of life in Brazil and her perceptions of Knoxville. She also has a mission, but more of that later.

“Brazil is very dangerous, but very beautiful. Seventy percent of the population is in poverty and lack education and jobs.” She explained that, though she is married, she can’t get used to wearing a wedding ring, because in Brazil she would fear her finger would be cut off to steal it. Just walking down the street openly brandishing a cell phone makes her happy, as that is not possible in Brazil: children would steal it.

Barbara and Mark Curran Visit Her Family in Brazil, Photo Courtesy of Barbara Curran

She explained that as many Brazilians as possible move from the country, many of them coming here. There are two principal ways they can move here for a long-term. One is to get an investment visa. This requires a $500,000 payment, so it is limited to a very few. More commonly, Brazilians arrive in California or cities like Miami, Orlando and others with a work visa. That was her pathway when the time came.

Growing up poor in Brazil, the fact that she is here is something of a small miracle. Determined to attend college, she took the government’s offer to “volunteer” on the weekends, Saturday and Sunday teaching classes for the poor, whether English or life skills in exchange for tuition to college. It’s a government program in Sao Paulo designed to lift young people out of poverty, by helping them obtain a liberal arts degree. Her degree is in Portuguese and English.

As she worked her way through college she began searching for a way out of her native country. She found it in the form of paying for a work visa by selling her car she’d worked to buy. The cost was about $1250 which compares just about precisely to the minimum wage in the country of $1300 per month. She knew her degree would not be accepted in the US and she would have to work an unskilled job or redo her degree.

She got a job as an au pair through an agency and came to the states with the intention of learning English, saving money and returning to teach in Brazil. Her first assignment was with a couple in California, but when the mother lost her job, Barbara was reassigned to a family in Knoxville and fell in love with the city – and with Mark.

Mark Trying empadinha in Brazil for the first time, Photo from Barbara Curran

When that job ended, she was sent to New Jersey, then to North Carolina with a family who she felt were abusive. She ran when she got the chance and the family called immigration because, without a job, she was an illegal immigrant. She called Mark and told him she would come to Knoxville to say “goodbye,” before leaving for Brazil. Mark, who works at Knoxville Bookkeeping and Tax Service, had a different plan, suggesting they get married and she accepted.

Still not in the clear, she had to travel to Memphis to get her status changed to a green card. She was met with suspicion with the authorities there implying her marriage was simply to avoid deportation. She wasn’t sure she’d get the green card, but after a two week wait, it arrived in the mail. She has since obtained her real estate license and works for Exit Real Estate.

She sees Knoxville as something of a paradise (with the exception of the limited public transportation). The low cost of living, relative safety, good schools (compared to the state of schools in Brazil), the seasons and the relative organization of society all appeal to her – as well as the fact that she finds people here much nicer. She also thinks it will appeal to a broader set of Brazilians.

The structure of society is a big thing for her. She described the “Brazilian Way,” as a phrase to describe a society in which people are habitually late and disorganization is rampant. While they have “more holidays and vacation than anywhere else in the world,” (It is actually near the top, with 34 potential annual days required off, compared to 0 in the U.S.) the roads are falling apart and few people can afford a car. Travel is dangerous. Real Estate is not a career there as the property is in the hands of a few and changes hands in private exchanges. She says it is a “beautiful mess.”

Barbara and Mark Curran at Vol Game, Photo Courtesy of Barbara Curran

The Brazilian population in Knoxville is increasing fairly rapidly and it’s her mission to use her real estate career to further that growth. She is saving to bring her family here, but also has plans to promote real estate here to Brazilians who have already moved to larger U.S. cities. When she moved here in 2015, she estimates there were around 100 Knoxvillians from Brazil. Now, she estimates that number to be closer to 500.

The conversation was a good reminder of the great things we easily take for granted both in our country and in our city. She feels she has found a home she will never leave and is excited to help grow its economy and to bring others here who will do the same. “I miss Brazil every day, but I will never move back.” She feels she’s found paradise. Here is that original blog post, “Five Reasons Why Foreigners Love Knoxville,” that she reached out to share. Read it and welcome a fellow citizen with a background that may just be a little different from most.


  1. Larry Lewis says

    A fascinating personal story with the happiest of endings….or, beginnings. Congratulations to Barbara and Mark, on several fronts. We need more positive input like this, regarding what some perceive to be immigration issues. So happy you’ve decided to make the USA your home!

  2. Leticia Flores says

    I’m so glad you posted this story! It sometimes takes people not from your home to show you how beautiful your home is. I have heard similar sentiments from Serbian friends who have had a chance to attend school here. We are lucky to be seeing more people from other countries/continents coming to live in Knoxville; it makes us a stronger community if we can learn from each other. Now maybe we’ll see some pão de queijo and feijoada popping up in restaurants.

  3. Knoxville FSO says

    I am a former US diplomat/Vice Consul for the US State Department, i.e. I used to do visa interviews overseas for a living. This is a nice story and I am certainly happy for this woman and how things have worked out for her, but I must quibble with your hostile framing. She wasn’t “met with suspicion” during her marriage visa interview; instead, she was asked the same types of questions anyone seeking an immigrant visa of any type is met with (including the $500K E-visas just so you know) where the burden of proof was upon her to show that there was no fraud. That’s the entire point of an immigrant visa interview, to determine if the visa applicant meets the terms of the visa that they have applied for, i.e. that the standing they claim to have to request to immigrate is based on truth and that there is no fraud. (As compared to a non-immigrant visa interview where the orientation of the interview is to determine if there is immigrant intent i.e. will they go home when their visa expires.)

    I will say that some Vice Consuls/USCIS officials mistakenly think that love is a requirement for a marriage visa (instead the standard is that the relationship is real and not contractual, e.g. money has not exchanged hands) and that type of official can get snippy when faced with what looks like an improbable love relationship, but a young pretty woman wanting to marry a man in a similar age range doesn’t constitute that, again meaning that questions put to her about her veracity do not amount to unreasonable or hostile suspicion.

    I am all for happy immigrant stories and am proud of my work history that has helped 10s of 1000s immigrate to and visit the United States legally, but I also have legions of fraud stories that demonstrate why the questions that are asked are necessary (given that the INA says what it says) that I’m happy to share with you (albeit not for publication) so that the next time you find you want to write a happy Knoxville story like this, you can leave out the framing that tries to make other Knoxvillians like me the bad guy.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Thank you for the response about your experience and thank you for your career guided by your principles. One sentence in the middle of a thousand word article, however, doesn’t constitute framing the entire story, nor does it make you personally look like a “bad guy.” This was the experience I reported as it was told to me. Her single experience doesn’t imply that anyone, including the specific person who may have been suspicious for reasons she deemed legitimate, is a bad guy.

    • Chris Eaker says

      I also agree that you are being a bit too sensitive. You said it was unfair of Alan to write that she was met with suspicion, then proceeded to explain how their job was to be suspicious.

    • Thank you. It’s pretty annoying when people act like the routine questioning is somehow made with malintent. The intent is not hostile in any way. It’s just the way immigration works.

      I’m also disappointed by the disingenuous responses that act like the phrase “implying her marriage was simply to avoid deportation” wasn’t intended to make immigration officials seem bad (or at least, seem like they had bad intentions in this case). They weren’t “implying” anything. They were simply investigating and inquiring to assure compliance with the law–as is their statutory and regulatory responsibility.

      • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

        Dave and Knoxville FSO, I think it is pretty important to keep in mind that none of us were present when this woman had her experience. Knoxville FSO says, “She wasn’t “met with suspicion,” and Dave you say “the intent is not hostile in any way . . . they weren’t implying anything.” Since none of us were present, it seems pretty condescending to tell this woman that what she experienced didn’t really happen. And how does saying that one person in a massive bureaucracy was suspicious impugn the integrity of every good worker in the system or even that person in a particular exchange?

        Her perception is hers. She told it to me. I told it to you. Should I have dismissed what she said because I think she simply can’t be correct? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so.

  4. Ken Johnson says

    I am so happy for Barbara and Mark. I have known Mark, through our son, who grew up with Mark, for over 30 years. The story is heartwarming and reinforces the fact that we live in one of the best areas in the world here in East Tennessee.

  5. Beautiful story! I am one of the many Brazilians that has chosen to settle in Knoxville, a great place to raise a family! I’m also very happy here and so are my 3 children. Thank you so much Barbara for sharing your story.

  6. “Cities like Orlando, Miami, California…”

    Do you mean California City, California MO, or state of California?


    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Thanks, Patrick . . . you caught one of the 20 or 30 mistakes I carefully hid to amuse you.

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